The he-man scored his 15th hat-trick in Real colours to suppress the reverie of Atlético fans who dared to believe
For one brief ecstatic moment, they believed. The noise rose and so did their arms, scarves twirling round wrists. The Vicente Calderón shook. The corrugated iron that stood between the fans and the road a hundred feet below didn't look stable, but they didn't care as they bounced off it. Atlético Madrid weren't actually winning but it didn't matter. This was a glorious draw; Radamel Falcao's header made it 1-1 and no matter how much their coach had insisted that only the mediocre wanted to win this game to screw Real Madrid, they wanted to screw Real Madrid. So very, very badly. Being an Atlético means being antimadridista they had cut Madrid's lead at the top of the table to two points. Three weeks ago, it was 10. Besides, they were still attacking. They could sense another one coming, feel it. This was going to be a great night.
The trouble is, this was also Atlético. And that … that was barely human. A beast. A supernatural force. Whatever it was, there was no stopping it.
They should have known better. This was a Madrid derby; they should know what happens by now. Find an old match report and hit the keys: Ctrl C, Ctrl V. Football's Truman Burbank had booked himself into the Cherry Street Bed and Breakfast for another night. Atlético Madrid have not beaten Real Madrid this century. Their last win came in 1999, when Thibaut Courtois, their goalkeeper, was seven and the peseta was still legal tender. An Atlético win belongs to another century and another age – an age, claimed El Mundo Deportivo, when the people who went to Eurovision were actually singers. It's a theory ever-so-slightly undermined by the fact that Dana International was the defending champion, but you get the point. More than 50 teams have beaten Real Madrid since 1999; Atlético are not one of them.
Some thought things would be different with the new coach Diego Simeone – captain of the double-winning team, heart and soul of the club. But things aren't particularly different with Simeone: while the sensation has changed, the intensity too, results are no better than under Gregorio Manzano. There's something about Atlético now that conjured up the Simpsons scene when Homer changes his name. "From now on," he tells Bart, "there are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way and the Max Power way." "Isn't that the wrong way?" Bart asks, to which Homer replies: "Yes. But faster." Not that it is Simeone's fault: 16 different managers have coached the team since the last win against Madrid and none have succeeded. The Madrid derby is cursed. Atlético are.
No matter what happened, something always happened. Atlético have suffered early goals and late ones, bad luck and worse luck. Most of all they have suffered from Miguel-Angel Gil Marín and Enrique Cerezo. And from the crushing weight of reality: they are 40 points behind their city neighbours. And on Wednesday night they suffered something special. Something always happens; on Wednesday night, he happened. There is a Spanish phrase that identifies something, or someone, by saying: "it has a name and a surname". He has a two names and a surname that never gets used – Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro – but rarely has the phrase been more applicable. Atlético Madrid's problem had two names and no surname: Cristiano and Ronaldo.
To start with, Ronaldo was on the floor more than he was on his feet. And, no, that is not flippant, it is a fact: in the opening three minutes, he was down three times. Atlético seemed to have decided to double up on him, Luis Perea coming across to join Juanfran in stopping him. He got knocked down but he got up again – after a little while sitting there shaking his head – and they were never going to keep him down. He had already scored a brilliant 36-yard free-kick to give Real Madrid the lead, employing that unique narrow run-up, his body almost folded in on itself, hitting the ball with his laces. Then he belted in the second from the top corner of the penalty area.
The word breathtaking has become a cliche. But this actually was breathtaking. Unexpected and devastating. You could almost hear the air rushing out of the lungs of the 55,000 fans, deflating like the auto pilot in Airplane, songs stuck in their throats, unable to escape. Deflating, in fact, like the ball seemed to on the first goal, dipping and swishing from side to side, as if Ronaldo had hit it so hard that, halfway, it had suddenly burst and dropped.
Just when Atlético were pushing, just when they believed, whallop! It was all over. Thirteen minutes the joy had lasted, the belief. Thirteen minutes was how long it took for Ronaldo to end it; 13 minutes from Falcao leaping at one end to Ronaldo standing there at the other, rolling up his shorts and pointing at his thigh. A little over 13 minutes after that, he got his third from the penalty spot to complete his 15th hat-trick since joining Real Madrid. Yes, 15th. And then he provided the assist for José Callejón to get the fourth. When the final whistle went, he picked up the ball and stuffed it up his shirt. Another one.
Down in the car park leading out of the north end, Madrid's players filed through serious, silent and in formation. At the other end of the passageway, Ronaldo was standing before the cameras grinning. "I'd like to thank my team-mates; without them I wouldn't have got the goals," he said before dashing through, stopping briefly to have his picture taken with an Atléti fan in a wheelchair, and on to the bus.
This time, he was wrong. Ronaldo might have got the goals without them. This time, he carried Madrid. He re-established the four-point lead at the top of the table and may still carry them to the league title. If not in play - Ronaldo is not the kind of footballer who controls the game – then certainly in that sense of constant, imminent danger. The brutal beauty of the way he plays. The sheer decisiveness. This is far too good a team to ever talk about a one-man show, but his impact is astonishing. Ronaldo is the Zumosol Cousin: the powerful, perfect specimen, all white teeth and physique, who steps up to rescue his little cousin. When he is flying, he can appear unstoppable, ubiquitous. As one columnist grandly put it: "He is not Cristiano, he is the whole of Christianity."
Against Atlético, the goals came from nowhere. "Cristiano condemned us with his goals," said Simeone. "Those goals did not fit the way the game was going but they were decisive. Goals are more important than ideas."
He has condemned so many others. Atlético were one of only three teams against whom Ronaldo had not scored from goals other than penalties (the others were Barcelona and Tenerife). Now he has remedied that. And with a goal, with two goals, that were barely plausible. Overall, his figures are even more absurdly brilliant. You could argue that they belong to a different age but for one thing: they are better than the figures racked up in pretty much any age, ever. His three on Wednesday night were his 38th, 39th, and 40th of the season. It was his seventh hat-trick. It was also the first time a Madrid player had scored three at Atlético since Alfredo di Stéfano in 1952-53 and he became the first player to score 20 away goals in a season. Before last year, no one had ever exceeded 38 goals. Ronaldo has done it twice in a row. He has 138 goals in 136 games for Madrid, for goodness sake.
So he is cocky? So what? Why shouldn't he be? It is all too easily forgotten that when he made his "rich, handsome and good at football" comment his tongue was wedged at least part of the way into his cheek, that he was right, and that it is that attitude, that self-worth, that has made him the player he is. Or that it is his teams that benefit. The sheer bloody-mindedness, the obsession, the ambition, is almost suffocating and supremely impressive: the drive and determination. The relentlessness of his dedication has proven successful. Ronaldo has more than earned the right to puff out his chest; puffing out his chest has earned him the right to puff it out some more. He hasn't always played brilliantly, of course, but nor has he ever hidden. Back in the days when people wore black boots, the very few who wore coloured ones stood out a mile. White or blue, yellow or red, the verdict was always the same: you'd better be really bloody good.
Last night Ronaldo wore fuchsia.
• Osasuna recovered and Raúl García did it again. Two more goals from him – the second a gorgeous lob – gave his side a 2-0 win over Espanyol which puts them back in a European place, two points behind Levante and four behind Málaga in the final Champions League slot.
• The fans chanted for Javier Clemente to leave and for the board to resign but ended up cheering a miraculous late winner from Gastón Sangoy that took Sporting off the bottom. For now at least: Racing play Mallorca on Thursday. Truth is, though, that the bottom three are likely to be the bottom three at the end of the season – Villarreal remain four points clear of the relegation zone and Granada, who drew 2-2 with Athletic, are eight points clear.
• Two headers in one game? And one of them from Pedro? Something funny is going on at Barcelona, who racked up a ninth consecutive win against Getafe, finishing 4-0. Alexis Sánchez's first, assisted by Lionel Messi and Messi's goal, assisted by Andrés Iniesta, were beauties. Barcelona temporarily climbed to only one point behind Madrid. But Pep Guardiola said they still can't win the league.
• Speaking of which: is it time for Athletic Bilbao to start talking penalties with their heads? Or at least to stop fighting over them. Another battle, another miss.
Results: Osasuna 2-0 Espanyol, Real Sociedad 1-1 Betis, Barcelona 4-0 Getafe, Valencia 4-1 Rayo, Granada 2-2 Athletic, Sporting 3-2 Levante, Atlético 1-4 Real Madrid. Thursday's fixtures: Villarreal-Málaga Racing-Mallorca Sevilla-Zaragoza.